Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows
Yes, I’m grateful that the bitter cup of whatever last week’s blizzard was named passed us more or less by. But that doesn’t make the dribs and drabs of powdery snow — an inch here, two inches there — we’ve been getting any more enjoyable.
Until this morning, that is, when the weather brought a sweet little field sparrow to the feeders.
A cool day in late November — especially a cool day in late November with cold and big snows predicted for the next day — is perfect for spending a little time with the backyard sparrows. The roster Tuesday morning was pretty much what was expected in northern New Jersey: lots of slate-colored juncos and white-throated sparrows, with the odd chipping, song, and fox sparrow to liven things up.
One bird, this bird, stood out in the feeder flock.
It was more than superficially junco-like, with a dull gray hood, white belly, and pink bill, but the pattern and color of the underparts were off. The dull olive-tan of the breast sides and flanks seemed wrong for not just for a slate-colored but for any junco, and the color reached quite far in towards the vent in a wide band, almost isolating the white undertail coverts. At some angles, the bird seemed to show a “color corner” between the hood and the breast sides, but at others just the usual smudgy blend shown by brown, immature or female, slate-colored juncos. Some of the rear flank feathers seemed to have very fine, just barely visible dark shaft streaks.
A closer look revealed a couple of other oddities. The ground color of the back seemed unexceptional, but its neat pattern of prominent but fine black streaks was worth a second look.
A bit of faint, diffuse streaking isn’t all that unusual in brown juncos this time of year, but these markings — darker in life than in the photos I took through my dirty window — struck me as beyond the pale.
I have no good, tightly-focused images of the wing pattern, but the one above at least gives a hint of the inconspicuous dotted wing bars; the tips of the median coverts weren’t always even this visible, but several of the greaters on each wing showed very small white triangular tips, creating a short, jagged “droplet” wing bar on the gray wing.
The bird’s tertials seemed more or less normal, with the typical broad buffy edgings of brown slate-colored juncos, if perhaps just a little more white towards the tip of the outer web than most.
While the other juncos were setting off their feathered flash bulbs all around the yard, this bird kept its tail resolutely folded. Though I could never contort myself into a position from which I could see the underside of the tail, I eventually had several reasonable if brief looks at the bird in flight, when it showed no white in the outer rectrices. Given my split-second view of the bird as it dashed into the arborvitae, I’d be hard pressed to prove that it actually even had all of its rectrices, but the ones I could see were dark.
With the growing suspicion that this might be a bird of mixed ancestry (put that way, which bird is not?), I worked hard to imagine the shadow of a face or throat pattern. The hood seemed unremarkably gray, with some dull rusty shading and streaking at some angles. There was an occasionally noticeable paler patch on each side of the neck beneath the auriculars, a feature shown by many brown slate-colored juncos.
The strangest thing about the bird’s head plumage was the area around the eye. The lore was decidedly blacker than the rest of the already dark head, no big deal in a slate-colored junco, but that color continued back to surround the eye and to end in an odd broad point behind it.
The bird was minutely larger than some of the other juncos in the flock, but still obviously much smaller than the white-throated sparrows.
If this is not just an even weirder than usual junco, what might it be? There are numerous records and reports of apparent hybrids between slate-colored juncos and white-throated sparrows, among them the winter birds well photographed and well described by Mark Szantyr a few years ago in Connecticut.
Nearly all of the documented individuals assigned to this hybrid combination are obviously, conspicuously intermediate in appearance, combining a white throat and lore with a gray breast and head. Some are more subtly marked, such as the one photographed by Szantyr and almost entirely junco-like but for a single brown, white-tipped greater covert. And surely others, perhaps the majority of them, are even more cryptically clad, indiscernible to humans and maybe even to their flock mates.
If in fact this odd sparrow was a hybrid or introgressant, I’m not sure we can tell with any real certainty which species might be lurking in its family tree. To my eye, the very fine back pattern and incomplete vent strap immediately suggested not a Zonotrichia but rather a Lincoln’s sparrow, but we will probably never know.
We’ll probably never know. But it’s always fun to look close; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t bother looking at all.
Both photographed here in northern New Jersey on the same late October day.
The calendar and the weather agree: It’s still late summer in northern New Jersey. A month from now, things will be different, but for the moment, only the most foolishly impatient prodder of the seasons is thinking of winter birds.
Except, of course, on this date. It’s September 6. And every year on this day, we pause — don’t we? — to remember the only Oregon junco named for a New Jersey birder.
Eugene Carleton Thurber died in California on September 6, 1896, at the shockingly tender age of 31. Born in Poughkeepsie in 1865, Thurber moved to Morristown in 1881; a “promising young ornithologist, a careful collector, and a good observer,” he published his magnum (and perhaps solum) opus in November 1887, the List of Birds of Morris County, notable especially for its early records of the Lawrence’s and Brewster’s warblers.
Fragile health sent Thurber to California in 1889, where he
lived an out-of-door life in the field, collecting birds and mammals, as his health would permit, and preserving to the end his love for his favorite study.
On May 24, 1890, Thurber collected two juncos on Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. That summer, he showed the skins to Alfred Webster Anthony, another New York native exploring the Golden State; Anthony was “considerably surprised” to learn of juncos’
nesting in abundance within twenty-five miles of Los Angeles,
and as none of the other local collections seemed to include any similar specimens, he organized an expedition in late August to “obtain, if possible, a series of birds.” On August 27 and 28, Anthony found juncos “very abundant” between 5200 and 5800 feet elevation. He shot what seems to have been a total of eight adults, two juveniles, and one bird of unknown age and sex; all of those new adult specimens, however, were — as one might have predicted, without climbing the mountain in the first place — “in ragged moulting plumage,” inadequate for diagnosis.
So Anthony, apparently forgetting about Google Images, sent his little series, which by now included both of Thurber’s skins, to Washington, whence Robert Ridgway replied with some “rather unexpected” information: Anthony’s — Thurber’s — California juncos represented a “strongly marked” but still unnamed subspecies.
A deficiency, naturally enough, that Anthony promptly made up in the October 31, 1890, issue of Zoe:
I take pleasure in naming this handsome Junco for the discoverer, Mr. E.C. Thurber of Alhambra, Cal.
A few months later, having run through the juncos in a collection of birds purchased from Thurber in 1889, Frank Chapman was mildly skeptical: he pointed out that Anthony had failed to demonstrate that his new thurberi could be distinguished from the very widespread shufeldti.
The AOU, however, recognized the new race in 1892, and continued to list it as valid in the last Check-list to tally subspecies. BNA and Pyle, too, list thurberi among the Oregon junco subspecies. I’m glad we have a name for this population, whose recent colonization of the nearby California lowlands has provided some surprising insights into the rapidity of junco evolution.
Thurber’s early death kept him from leaving much of a biographical trail: We know a great deal more about the junco than the man. All the more reason to remember him once a year, I think, even if our juncos are still a month away.
A hundred years ago, there was still a tidy little list of North American birds whose nest and eggs had never been seen by white scientists. Among them: the dusky seaside sparrow.
The collectors of those days took their failure personal, and their inability to discover the home of
a bird whose range covered only a few square miles, and one that had been known to science for forty-one years, and whose nest had never been found, was a “slam” on the ability of us true Oologists.
cruised the entire length of Merritts Island, visiting every place where there had ever been any records of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow…. on the morning of May 21st … I saw a Black Sparrow…. I killed the bird and upon dissecting same found it to be a male evidently in full breeding.
This sure made us feel good.
Encouraged, the collectors “plunged into the marsh” and quickly discovered “at least” twenty dusky seaside sparrows in the dense salicornia carpet. Four hours later, they had found no nest. Simpson suggested over dinner that the sparrows
did not lay eggs at all but had young like an animal.
And so after their meal, they took to the time-honored method of dragging the marsh with a weighted rope. It took no time at all before a bird flushed as if from a nest, which the searchers found and promptly collected, with its three “heavily incubated” eggs.
To say that we were elated is expressing it mildly and we did a regular Indian Tango or some other kind of dance…. We vowed we would find more nests or never leave the spot.
Baynard and Simpson lived up to their vow only too well in the days that followed, taking fledglings, nestlings, and two more sets of eggs. The third clutch they collected was so “heavily incubated” that one egg began to hatch on the way back to the boat; Baynard
was unable to save but one egg of this set.
Two of the nests and egg sets, along with the skins of the parent birds, were sold to John Eliot Thayer, of gull fame. Thayer in turn donated the first nest and clutch, collected on May 21, 1914, to Harvard’s museum, where they still reside.
Does it matter that, by my count, Baynard and Simpson killed at least 17 sparrows and sparrows in spe on those few May days a century ago?
I don’t know how to answer that question, or how to argue that the dusky seaside sparrow would have remained doomed regardless of the efforts of the collectors. But wouldn’t it be fine today to have seventeen dusky seaside sparrows and their hundred years of descendants buzzing away in the marshes of the Florida coast?